With rumors of voter fraud and election tampering abound in a world ravaged by Coronoavirus, hyperpartisanship, and culture warring, we are all wondering what November third (or some day after it) will bring. Predictions compared Trump to dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, or Pinochet. But such parlor games should have no place in serious analysis, and so you will not find that here. What I and virtually everyone else with a pulse wants to know, aside from who will win, is what might happen if the president loses. The polls are looking like that is the most likely case, but they were saying the same thing in 2016, so I think we should all remember to be humble in our forecasts and aspersions.
Since we are near the end of Donald Trump’s first (and likely only) term in office, we can better analyze what his legacy might be if he loses to Joe Biden. I have decided to constrain my political examples to what can be found in American History, because most attempts to insert foreign scenarios into American politics tend to ignore the very different nature of American Politics. After all, we exist on the only continent that hasn’t succumbed to the rule of a fascist or communist dictatorship at some point in the last century. With that all said and done, here are the three most likely scenarios we have for a Post-Trump GOP.
The Nixon Scenario
The current state of American Politics has some similarities with the late 1960s and the 1970s. Race Riots, slow economy, and a President who has irreparably damaged the image of themselves, and their party. Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate investigations. The Media believed that the Republican Party would never win the White House Again.
We see much of this in the Trump administration as well. Many cabinet members have had to resign, many of whom, along with Donald Trump, his family, and the remnants of his administration have been accused of corruption. And, of course, an impeachment to top it all off. The public is convinced that the Republican Party is finished and damaged beyond repair. We also see a handful of Republicans supporting the Democrats, similar to how leading members of the GOP convinced President Nixon to resign. Donald Trump, of course, is not going to resign, but the similarities are quite stunning.
However, of all these scenarios, this one is the most optimistic for the GOP. Gerald Ford and the Republicans may have lost the White House in 1976, but 1980 saw the birth of the modern Republican Party with President Reagan winning one of the biggest electoral college victories in American History, only to top himself again four years later. Reagan was so popular that his Vice President also won a term for himself right after. Twelve years of Republican control of the Presidency, followed by Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1950s, and controlling it more often than not over the last 30 years. If Trump’s legacy is Nixonian, things will probably get better for the political right.
However there are some important differences between Nixon and Trump. Nixon chose to do what was best for the GOP and resigned . And after his resignation he retired from public life, instead of incessantly commenting on politics. And more so than that, Nixon didn’t have the same cult of personality that has grown up around Trump within the GOP. Regardless of whether Trump will accept the results if he loses, he won’t go silently into the night and live out a quiet retirement. He has shown himself incapable of that. He can’t remain silent, even when it would be politically beneficial. His egomania is the biggest wrench in this scenario.
The Carter Scenario
For similar reasons that Nixon’s place in GOP history has stood out to me, Jimmy Carter also stands out. Nixon leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and that is why Carter is elected. But Carter’s Problem is that he is unprepared for the office. He was quite abysmal on domestic policy, unable to reign in the stagflation of the decade (even if his appointment of Paul Volcker to the Fed ultimately did end it). During the energy crises his answer was to tell the public to wear a sweater instead of turning on the heater. He completely bungled the Iranian Revolution, and allowed the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan. However, he did have one important foreign policy victory; the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Egypt became the first Arab State to recognize the state of Israel and normalize relations. Donald Trump is in a similar position.
Trump is elected because people are tired of politicians like Hilary Clinton . A majority of Americans didn’t want her, and electing Donald Trump was just the price you paid to keep her out. On domestic policy Trump has had a rather mixed run. The tax cuts were popular. Deregulation was appreciated by many within his own party, but that can easily be undone by the next administration. But this last year of his presidency, so far, has been a bumpy ride. Most world leaders weren’t prepared for the Coronavirus outbreak, and the fact that a foreign power initially covered it up makes it hard to blame everything on Trump. However his leadership after that has been lacking. His refusal to wear a mask or keep some kind of consistent policy guidelines is as uninspiring as Carter’s suggestion to wear a sweater.
Also similar to Carter, Trump has had some foreign policy successes, and even more coincidental, they involve Israel. The moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem was a first step in this process, and over the course of 3 and a half years the Arab states of the Middle East have been drawing closer to Israel in fear of Iran. Israel has normalized relations with both the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
The Carter Scenario involves a lackluster domestic policy, with a pretty good long term foreign policy. But here’s the downside. Americans don’t vote based on foreign policy. First and foremost they vote based on their wallets, which is why Carter lost to Reagan in 1980. The Carter Administration was seen as so bad that the American People didn’t elect another Democrat to the White House until after the Cold War was over. If this scenario is what awaits the GOP after a Trump defeat, then they can expect to be out of the White House for another 8 to 12 years.
The Hoover Scenario
This is the worst scenario for the GOP. Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928 with the expectation that he would mostly continue the Coolidge administration’s agenda, but in his first year of office the stock market crashed, setting off the Great Depression. His inability (or more accurately, perceived inability) to do anything in response to the Great Depression allowed Democratic challenger Franklin Delano Roosevelt to swoop in and promise the world. He promised to simultaneously increase government spending, lower taxes, and reduce the national debt all at the same time. Regardless of the efficacy of Roosevelt’s promise, the perception of Hoover as a “do nothing President” not only cost him the White House, but it kept the GOP out of the White House for 20 years, and in that 20 years we saw the Democrats radically transform the Federal Government. The New Deal set up new expectations for the government to get involved in the lives of individuals. It set up the foundation for the welfare and regulatory states we live with today. And many of these programs have become third rails that the GOP isn’t willing to touch, thereby permanently shifting the Overton window.
Donald Trump could very easily become another Herbert Hoover. Most of the historical comparisons being made to the Coronavirus Pandemic involve the 1918 Spanish Flu. This might be biologically accurate, but in terms of the Politics it has far more in common with the Great Depression. The Pandemic is an international issue that is impacting the global economy far more than the Spanish Flu did in terms of its interruptions. In 1918 we didn’t shut down the entire economy, but we did in 2020. It’s saved lives, but economically ruined numerous industries and small businesses. Similar to Hoover and the Great Depression, millions are now out of work for reasons beyond the President’s control. If it weren’t for the Pandemic all the other social problems that exploded after the killing of George Floyd probably wouldn’t have come up either, or at least not in the way they did. President Trump has made many mistakes in fighting the pandemic, but most of them are on messaging.
There’s another ominous sign, the down ballot races. An unpopular president can wreak havoc on his own party, as has been seen in most midterm elections for the last 30 years. If you can’t vote the president out of office, the next best thing is to kick out his party. The Same thing happened to the Republicans in 1930, who went from controlling 270 seats down to 218 (a one seat majority), and in the senate they went from 56 to 48 seats. This was followed up in 1932 when the GOP lost 101 seats in the House, and 11 seats in the Senate. When FDR came into the White House in 1933 the Democrats held a supermajority in congress, and were able to pass anything they wanted. The Republicans could have not shown up and the Democrats would still have had a quorum. The Republicans wouldn’t regain control of the House again until 1946, losing it again in 1948, followed by another short run in 1952.
For 20 years the GOP was kept out of the White House, and for 60 years they were kept from controlling the House of Representatives. The Democrats were able to drastically reshape American Politics, Economics, and Culture due to one President’s perceived mistakes. This is the nightmare scenario for the GOP, and the signs are all there. President Trump has an elderly opponent who is promising his own “New Deal” and wants to transform the US government again, and with a big enough win he and his party will perceive it as a mandate.
Now, as with all pieces of political speculation we should remember to be humble and leave plenty of room for caveats. The current polling putting Biden drastically ahead could be drastically wrong for reasons we don’t yet know. Something drastic could happen between now and election day. But I wouldn’t put much money on that changing people’s minds.